Deaf in dance: feeling the beat

‘Deaf in dance’, a free showcase featuring photos, artworks and stories from the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group (DIDG) is on now at State Library of Queensland.
A black and white photograph of three members of the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group, all of whom stand with their backs to the camera. The photo is focused on a central figure who wears a grass skirt and holds clapping stocks behind his back. A figure in shorts stands to his left, and another figure in a loincloth stands to his right.

As a proud Deaf First Nations dance troupe, the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group (DIDG) is nationally renowned and performs regularly at cultural and arts events around the country. Boasting more than 27 years of community impact and engagement, DIDG is a testament to the universal language of dance.

The troupe’s rhythmically charged action is on show in Deaf in dance, a new free showcase open daily at State Library of Queensland until 16 March 2025.

ArtsHub reached out to Ms Serene Fernando, State Library’s First Nations Curator, to find out more about how DIDG began, and the importance of its cultural impact.

‘DIDG was formed in 1997 by Patty Morris Banjo and the late Priscilla Seden, originally as a social get-together and cultural dance practice for Deaf and hard of hearing First Nations communities,’ Fernando explains.

‘They envisioned a group that provided safe and community-oriented space for people who live with the isolation [which] hearing loss and deafness can sometimes bring. Although many dancers come from different communities they share a common language – Auslan, or Australian sign language, together with Indigenous sign languages.’

Alongside artworks, digital stories, artworks and photographs from the State Library’s collection, Deaf in dance features custom tactile artwork from Kalkadoon artist Bree Buttenshaw.

‘Bree’s art adds so much to the visitor experience,’ says Fernando, ‘not only as a colourful visual through-line, but also as its own narrative that can be investigated through touch.’

Black-and-white photographs of the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group in rehearsal and performance appear throughout Deaf in dance, the result of a partnership between DIDG and photographers Sean Davey and Aisha Kenton, who spent a year travelling with the First Nations dancers.

Alongside the photos, this creative partnership also produced a series of collaborative artworks, with each DIDG member decorating portraits of themselves with designs, words and colours that capture their individual identities.

Finally, the showcase features recordings of DIDG performances and interviews with its members, giving deeper insight into the background and impact of the dance group on both a professional and personal level.

Fernando emphasises that the other side of the showcase is a focus on accessibility.

‘The whole story of DIDG is one of intersectionality,’ she explains. ‘The group was created to foster a sense of not only cultural belonging but also cultural empowerment. 

‘These artists from different places across Cape York and Torres Strait experience different journeys with physical and cultural deafness. It’s for this reason we wanted Deaf in dance to be accessible, in every sense.

‘Braille elements ensure that our blind and low-vision visitors can connect with the stories of this showcase. We also developed a full audio descriptive tour that describes every element as you travel through it. As well, all video aspects are Auslan-interpreted and captioned, and as part of ongoing programming, I will be leading monthly Auslan-interpreted curator tours.’

Fernando notes that throughout the production process, the project team worked with accessibility consultants on both the physical delivery and the language used in the showcase. 

‘Just as a showcase featuring First Nations content needs to be appropriate, so does the disability space, and the particularly the d/Deaf culture in Queensland,’ she says.

Deaf in dance is free and open daily at State Library of Queensland until 16 March 2025.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy